By Kerry Worsnop, Gisborne farmer and 2023 Nuffield scholar
It is not often that a wickedly complex policy problem, compete with rafts of untested assumptions and unknown consequences, is reined in before it can be unleashed on the unsuspecting public.
Still less common is the soul searching and deliberation that appears to have taken place regarding He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) in the shadow of an election, a time more commonly known for frenzied law making and last-minute urgency.
The nation, and more particularly rural folk, should be thankful for the stay of execution and take this time to ask ourselves what we really want.
The complexity of the underlying science has been a focal point for many calling for simpler, fairer, or more transparent options than either HWEN or the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) can offer, but few people have taken much time to understand what should have been the focal point all along: how to mobilise farmers towards the kind of innovation and change that they can embrace.
There will always be large sticks required to drive unwilling people towards outcomes that are at odds with their values, their economic motivations or their aspirations for their land, and no matter the size of the stick, the sheer scale of the rural landscape will largely provide ample room for dodging said sticks and waving them back in defiance.
The regulatory path by definition must be simple enough to apply. If it isn’t then it’s almost impossible to distinguish between those who are fully compliant and those who aren’t – especially when those who aren’t have little reason to advertise the fact.
Short of employing armies of people to undertake monthly stock counts on remote back country roads, there appears little reason to believe that enforcement would come easily.
For those who still believe that HWEN was the answer, it’s worth understanding exactly what the trade-offs were. In order to deliver any meaningful mitigation options that could realistically be recognised at farm level, farmers would need to collect and report the following detailed data to HWEN: including the area of the farm and the monthly or quarterly stock tallies for each livestock class and age group; quarterly (or at each farm management intervention) provide weights by stock class and by age range; the timing and tallies for animals moved on and off different forages; time off feed (stand off); all imported feed; the planned start of mating; weaning percentages or replacement rates and sales dates; the weight of meat, milk, wool and velvet produced by each age range and stock class; the area of the farm in each land slope class; effluent application methods (if any); and monthly urea application rates split into area, urease inhibitors and the method of application used.
All of these things must be reported by every single farmer nationwide on a continual basis year round in order for the system to be accurate, and in return for this veritable hoard of information, fortunate farmers would, in the first instance, be able to claim minor mitigations for using low-methane or low nitrous-oxide-inducing forages, and for fertiliser inhibitors and potential manure management.
If you happen to be a farmer without improved pastures or crops, who doesn’t use urea, then sorry, there are no mitigations proposed for you until sheep genetics become freely available in approximately 10 years. You will be gathering and reporting all of this detailed information just so that we know how much money to take off you.
Sequestration, hoped to be the game changer (which it most certainly is if you’re in the ETS planting pine trees) faced different challenges, as the eligible trees proposed in HWEN would struggle to cover the cost of their own stock-exclusion fencing – much less offset emissions liabilities or sequestration measurement costs.
It is worth remembering that NAIT tracks only one variable – and yet remains plagued with non-compliance and ghost cattle and has taken 10 years to achieve barely 70% indicative compliance, even with the introduction of well-advertised enforcement measures.
Back, then, to what we really want, which can surely be summed up by a future where change is aligned with the economic realities, community values, and aspirations for the land that our rural communities are stewards of. Anything else is doomed to fail, be exploited, or even worse, demonstrate to the world the futility of even trying.
We never asked farmers how they envisioned living up to the ever higher expectations of society and our customers into the future, and the operating model of HWEN, tight timeframes and looming ETS threat ensured these questions remain largely unanswered today, but if we are to have any hope of embracing the opportunities that exist in land-based solutions to environmental challenges, we need to start asking them now.